What's Up With Play at the WSOP ME Final Table?

Anyone involved in the poker world has heard a lot of WSOP ME Final Table talk over the last week. I’ve personally taken a greater interest in this year’s final table than I have in recent years. For a while, tournaments lost their appeal to me completely, but in the recent months, it’s become a resurgent fascination of mine. I had my first major successes as a poker player playing online MTT’s. However, I was a much less developed player then and don’t feel like I acquired the skills I’d now want before competing in tournaments again. On the other hand, becoming a professional cash game player has given me a lot of the skills that I think would allow me be competitive in today's tournaments. In fact, some of what I have seen in tournament play contradicts what I hold as correct in a cash setting. Therefore, I wanted to take a hand that seemed perfectly standard to tournament players and try to understand it, or potentially debunk it.

I’ll recap the hand before continuing, but it can be viewed below if you want to watch the video.

So this hand took place between Vojtech Ruzicka and Gordon Vayo. They are playing 5-handed with 500k/1m blinds with a 150k ante. Ruzicka starts the hand with 54.65m in the SB and Vayo has 53.7m on the button. For the rest of the hand history, I’ll use BBs.

Ruzicka (54.65 bb), Vayo (53.7 BB)

Folds to Vayo who raises to 2.3bb, Ruzicka 3-bets to 8.15 bb, BB folds, Vayo calls

Flop (18.05bb) Qc3c8d Ruzicka bets 6.15bb, Vayo Calls

Turn (30.35bb) 7h Ruzicka bets 11.4bb, Vayo Calls

River (53.15bb) 5s Ruzicka shoves for 27.85, Vayo calls

Ok, so I think Vayo’s play is pretty straightforward. However, Ruzicka’s play here is a little confusing to me. I have heard people I respect including former podcast guest Ryan LaPlante fully endorse this play. What most tournament players do discuss is whether to continue bluffing on the turn after c-betting the flop. To me, the strangest part of this line is actually the flop play. I’m almost always checking AK on this flop in a heads up 3-bet pot. However, I am usually playing much deeper, against worse players, and in situations where ICM is not a factor. Therefore, I am going to try and figure out whether or not I should be betting Ruzicka’s hand on this flop in cash, and whether Ruzicka should be betting his hand on this flop in this spot.

I think a quick disclaimer is in order. I admit that I could be very off-base on what Vayo and Ruzicka’s ranges look like in these spots. They are both tournament professionals who likely think about the game very differently than I do. My goal here is to try and rationalize Ruzicka’s play within the way I think about the game. It is possible that I won’t be able to rationalize his play, but that given the framework within which he and Vayo are playing, his play is much more justifiable.

Ok, so let’s start by better understanding our villain. Vayo is a professional who has a tight image. That’s a fairly common villain in live cash. This villain has a tendency to slightly overfold and will not overbluff in any spot. Those may or may not be accurate assumptions for Vayo, but let’s assume that they are and that they are also applicable to our cash villain. In cash, we can create a similar stack size given 100bb effective stacks and a UTG straddle.

So let’s start with villain’s button open preflop. I suspect that Vayo is going to have a slightly tighter opening range than a cash player would in a similar spot. That’s because he has two aggressive players in the blinds where cash players are likely to 3-bet much less. Still, this player should be fairly wide here with position and a lot of fold equity against the blinds' random ranges. I’m giving Vayo 50% of the more playable hands as an opening range. In a 6-max online game, I’d be opening 45-70% of hands on the button in 6-max online cash (the large range is mostly dependent on how often I’m getting 3-bet). I think 50% is a good point in this range since it captures the likelihood of being 3-bet along with ICM fold equity.

Given how wide Vayo is likely to be here along with the aggression of BB (Qui Nguyen, the eventual champion who is notoriously aggro), I think Ruzicka is likely to be 3-betting his entire continuing range. I’m giving him a range of about 16% of hands that includes suited broadways, suited aces, most pocket pairs, most suited connectors, and some of the best non-suited broadways.

So I think Vayo is probaby 4-betting his premiums and a few suited aces. His stack is definitely big enough to 4-bet fold here, although Ruzicka’s 3-bet size makes that much more difficult. Vayo would likely choose a size of 18bb which leverages some fold equity against the bottom of Ruzicka’s range and also gives him incentive to jam without the absolute top of his range. So I have Vayo continuing with 10% of the most playable hands in his range. I think our live villain counterpart is more likely to flat a hand like JJ or AQo in position. That villain may also defend slightly less since cash players are 3-betting much less out of the blinds.

So how does each player’s range look after this flop of Qc8h3c? Since Ruzicka isn’t raising a totally polarized range, both players have many hands in common. The main difference is that Ruzicka holds many more suited aces as well as all premiums. After this flop, Ruzicka’s range is 24% top pair plus, 29% pair less than top pair, 37% ace high, and 10% no made hand. Of those hands, just under 9% are flush draws. So, Ruzicka has about 25% clear flop value bets. His betting structure is about 40% pot on all remaining streets rather than betting closer to pot and getting all in on the turn. This would mean that in order to balance a range of 25% value bets betting all 3 streets, he would need to bet 44% of his range as bluffs. That means he is going to check 31% of his range on the flop. A good place to start building that checking range would be all of the middle-pair hands. That’s already 29%. I think choosing some of our AK, the next strongest, unpaired hand, would be a good candidate. However, over 8% if our range is AK, so we shouldn’t check it all or else we won’t have enough bluffs.

Now we have an excellent context within which we can make a flop decision with AK no club. If we want to be betting 69% of our range on the flop (seems appropriate balancing our Vayo’s folding tendencies and our slight range advantage), I think AK no club is a great choice to bet. I’d rather check AK with clubs since we are blocking many of the hands we’d like to barrel. There are also more turns we could bet if the flop checks through with a hand like AK with a club. If we wanted to check more on this flop, I think choosing some ace high flush draws and our weakest Qx would be a good choice, still making AK no club a good flop bet.

So what is Vayo calling? Given that he is calling with a set of 8s, I think it’s safe to assume he is only defending by calling on this flop. This makes sense given the stack sizes. His medium strength hands aren’t strong enough to raise, but his strongest hands are probably too strong to fold on most runouts. Therefore, the best thing Vayo can do is to keep Ruzicka’s range wide.

Now Vayo really needs to call a lot to not be exploited by Ruzicka here. If he defends less than 70% of his range on this flop, then Ruzicka’s bluffs will see an immediate profit. Vayo, probably doesn’t mind allowing Ruzicka to bluff relentlessly given ICM considerations, but his range is only 37% middle-pair plus and flush draws. Therefore, he needs to call much wider to get close to defending enough on this flop.

Looking at the flop now makes the rest of the hand look very straightforward. If Vayo is defending 60% of hands on the flop, he will have plenty of 3rd pair and no-pair bad draw hands on the turn. AK no club is an excellent hand to bluff turn since it can bluff river comfortably and still has the ability to improve to the best hand. AK no club likes bluffing river since it doesn’t block any of Vayo’s draws that he may have had to call two streets with.

So the last question… Is this also a good play in cash? Without getting too in depth, I would say yes. I think I am going to be continuing on the turn less often in cash since I think fewer players are going to be concerned with minimum defence frequencies. I also think cash players are more likely to raise a set on this flop or on the turn since they won’t mind playing their draws in a way that gets the money in bad sometimes. Those combined make AK no club a nice three-barrel candidate to me. AK also blocks AQ which I think is more likely to be in the cash player’s range than Vayo’s.

If you are a tournament player and you think I’m way off base, please give me a shout in the comments or at jack@justhandspoker.com. As always, thanks for reading!